Miron Zownir: “My true heroes were always losers”

The poet of radical photography discusses Berlin, monochrome and capturing the margins

There have been great photographers, like Diane Arbus, whose oeuvre focuses on those at the edge of society, and there have been great street photographers. But few have managed to combine the two modes with the same rich poeticism as Miron Zownir, whose monochrome works capture the intensity, danger and strange beauty of the modern city's margins.

Art is in the hands of those that can afford it, and they model their artists to the demands they create

Born in Karlsruhe, Zownir moved to west Berlin in the late 70s, where he photographed both the incipient punk scene and the destitute, outcast and ignored. Although he has travelled extensively, and lived in the US for 15 years, the architecturally disparate German capital has become a lodestone of his career.

Jocks&Nerds spoke to Zownir ahead of Berlin Noir, a publication from Pogo Books that gathers his Berlin photography from the 1970s to the present day. Berlin Noir is accompanied by an exhibition at Cologne’s Hardhitta Gallery.

Why did you decide to become a photographer?

I always wanted to express myself and my first creative passions were literature and filmmaking. But I got refused in two film schools and wasn’t ready for writing yet. Since my girlfriend at the time studied photography, I borrowed her camera and ventured into something that contained elements of both.

As a photographer, I’m combining both the storytelling aspect of literature and the visualisation of filmmaking condensed in photography. In this way, photography is the strongest media of all: it freezes one moment in time.

What attracted you to the streets, rather than a more sanitised environment?

The unpredictability, intensity and unveiled drama of real life situations. My aim was always to get a true moment of authenticity no matter how the situation was going to turn. And no matter how tragic, miserable or funny a situation was, or would become, I was always approaching it with a gloomy sense of aesthetics. I wouldn’t just randomly snap, as favoured by Magnum. I was always looking for the best angle, backdrop or expression. In this sense my photography is very subjective.

Why do you choose to work in monochrome? Is there any colour photography you find particularly effective?

I grew up with black and white newspapers, magazines, TV, cinema. Even my early fairytale books were illustrated in black and white. All my favourite photographers work in b/w, and most of my favourite movie directors. If your attention is reduced to a monochrome world you’re separated from your everyday vision, as in a dream. There is nothing left to distract you from the image and the visual experience becomes more intimate, more profound and sometimes more poetic. That might be my main reason for using b/w, but I never tried to reason about it. I just prefer it that way.

What is your aim in capturing lives on the margins?

People on the edge are much more vulnerable, desperate, expressive, interesting and picturesque. Life at the edge is as tough as it gets. And those people don’t have a lobby, an audience or any other value other than being a nuisance to the public and the authorities. No society needs them and no one gives them a real break. Everybody is focusing on the other side represented by stars and celebrities. That kind of work would bore me to tears. I feel a strong fraternity with many of those that society rejects and outcasts. I guess I’m kind of an iconoclast who likes to shake people out of their comfort zone.

Would you consider your work documentary?

Of course. But I’m open for any interaction if necessary and select the right moments. If you’re not invisible and spotted before your first picture, you manipulate any situation with your presence. People react according to your look, your smile, your frown, or your charisma, if you have any.

Have you ever encountered difficulty and obstruction in catching your chosen subject matter?

That’s unavoidable. I’m a pretty good anticipator of trouble and I know how to defend myself. But it’s always a kind of an uncomfortable Janus situation, because primarily you’re the troublemaker by invading someone’s privacy with your fucking camera.

Your book NYC RIP showed New York on the verge of deadening gentrification. Has Berlin also lost its vitality? Which cities, for you, still retain a sense of freedom?

Well, Berlin is still the most affordable capital in Europe. It has lost some of its magic, true, to gentrification but it’s still vital in an endemic kind of way. In London, Paris or any other great Western city, art, fashion, music etc. are imported. Unestablished talents can’t effort to create in those cities anymore without compromising their daily needs of survival.

Berlin is still a melting pot for hungry unestablished artists and freaks. But nobody pays much attention any more to subcultures. Art is in the hands of those that can afford it, and they model their artists to the demands they create themselves. If you don’t play the game, you can’t win. And losers don’t have the same reputation as in the 1960s – freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose – or enough money. The world has definitely got more restricted. And freedom is a merchandise you’ve got to be able to afford.

Do your cinematic and photographic works influence each other?

I guess so. But I would rather say I influence both. In my movies I create and in photography I have to search for my images. My photography probably influences my films through the experience of so many characters I encounter, and my aesthetic approach on my photography resembles that of my films. But I get influences by many other things too. Like my dreams, my ideas, adventures or daily struggle.

For me, your photography often has a strong sense of narrative. What influence do you feel literature has had on your work?

You’re talking about your imagination. Since my photography is subtle and explicit, full of shadows and strangeness, pain and ecstasy, and so on, it creates a kind of mystery that triggers lots of questions and associations. It becomes more than just a document. In this way it might even be poetic, like something out of a novel. But yes, I was, from very early on, strongly influenced by literature – and my true heroes were always losers.